The answer was quite simple. Pretty much everything they played sounded…. the same. This is a pitfall that many, many part time/local type bands fall into and I think I know why. It starts with the very simple but often neglected concept of dynamics.
Classically trained musicians understand this practically from moment one of their training. Dynamics (the amount of volume and/or “intensity” for lack of better description) are usually noted in a piece of classical music: pianissimo (very soft), forte (loud) and many notations in between. Most bands playing various forms of popular music on the local level don’t employ these concepts. It’s straight ahead, full steam, balls to the wall playing. While this can convey a sense of excitement – or perhaps the players’ nervousness! – it gets boring pretty quickly. The same could be said of playing very softly all the time.
Professional bands understand this. Mumford & Sons take it to the extreme with the majority of their songs beginning with quite soft or medium dynamics, even moments of silence, but at some point the volume, tempo and intensity rises. The classic “Stairway to Heaven” is another example – the louder, intense portion of the song would probably not have had the impact without being preceded by the softer section that begins the song.
My theory about why less professional musicians don’t think much about dynamics is that is some subconscious way they are afraid that playing softly at certain points will result in the audience losing interest. But you know what? Just the opposite is true (assuming we’re not talking about a bunch of rowdy drunks in a bar!): framing the louder, more exuberant parts of a song with quieter but focused interludes draws in the listener, making them wonder what’s coming next.
This requires some practice and the ability to listen closely to what your band mates are doing. Good, productive band practices are another subject entirely that I’ll comment on in the future but the point is – everyone needs to be on the same page. Working on dynamics is one of the best ways I know to make ANY band sound professional, prepared and INTERESTING.
Peace & good music,